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Tennis, optimism helping former UK player Emery fight off cancer

UK volunteer assistant tennis coach Matt Emery talked to player Grant Roberts during practice at the HiIary J. Boone Tennis Center on Monday. Emery, a former player at UK and the son of UK Coach Dennis Emery, was diagnosed with testicular cancer that has now spread to his lungs.
UK volunteer assistant tennis coach Matt Emery talked to player Grant Roberts during practice at the HiIary J. Boone Tennis Center on Monday. Emery, a former player at UK and the son of UK Coach Dennis Emery, was diagnosed with testicular cancer that has now spread to his lungs. Herald-Leader

Matt Emery's smile is the first thing you notice.

It easily distracts from his bald head, which he was forced to shave a few months ago.

The smile distracts from the bloating that at times has made him unrecognizable to even his own father.

Emery is the son of University of Kentucky men's tennis coach Dennis Emery and was a standout player for the Wildcats earlier this decade.

Now, at age 28, Matt is enduring his second bout with cancer within the past year.

But the smile never wanes.

"Matthew is somebody who 100 percent of the time finds the positive in any situation," Dennis Emery said. "And he's always been that way. He's someone who is just really optimistic."

Matt Emery is so positive that he can even find the good in cancer, even this second round that doctors found in his left lung in February just eight months after they removed one of his testicles.

"You get to take naps with no excuses," Matt joked. "You get to eat out a little more."


"I get out of my household chores a little more," he said, looking over at his wife, Sara, who doesn't find this nearly as funny as he does.

But he smiles.

So Sara can't help but smile, too.

'What does this mean?'

By the time Matt got home to Sara at their new apartment in Florida, he had convinced himself that the lump was getting smaller.

And it was just the size of a pea, so how harmful could it be?

"I was just literally going to the bathroom and felt a little lump," he said. "It wasn't painful at all."

So a week later when he got home from a trip to Texas, he casually told his wife of just 10 months about the lump.

It's definitely getting smaller, he assured her.

She didn't want to hear any of that and demanded that he call their friend, a primary care doctor, in the morning.

"As a woman, you're told when you feel a lump, go get it checked out," Sara said.

In some ways, his wife's stubbornness might have saved his life.

"If I hadn't been with her and felt so comfortable with her, then I may not have said anything to anyone," Matt said. "You can see how easily it can fall through the cracks."

Their friend the doctor was immediately concerned and sent them to a specialist. An ultrasound had doctors convinced the mass most likely was malignant.

As the doctor said the word cancer last June 16, shock set in.

"What does this mean?" Matt remembered thinking. "How long do I have to live? You just don't know anything."

Within two weeks of that first appointment, doctors removed Matt's testicle.

They gave him a good prognosis since they caught it so early and removed the mass.

In more than 70 percent of these cases, the cancer does not spread to other regions of the body, doctors assured them.

The newlywed 20-somethings had barely settled into their new lives in Florida, where Matt worked at a tennis academy. They knew almost no one.

Sara was dealing with her own family scare. The day after Matt's diagnosis, she got a call from her mother in Pittsburgh saying her father had been taken to the emergency room. He had multiple bypass surgery shortly thereafter.

Being away from home was difficult, and the couple wanted to know they had done everything they could to make sure Matt's cancer wasn't coming back.

So they sought out more opinions at UK's Markey Cancer Center.

There they found doctors they connected with and immediately tried to find a way to get back home. On their first anniversary as a married couple, Sara interviewed for a job as a staff assistant for the UK baseball team. She got the job and they moved home.

Matt took a position as a volunteer assistant coach for his dad.

Trying to beat the odds

Thank goodness Feb. 29 only happens once every four years or else Sara might have to regularly relive what she calls "the absolute worst day."

That was the day that doctors at UK confirmed that Matt's cancer was back, this time in his left lung, which made it stage three, the most serious of the stages of testicular cancer.

"We felt like we had come so far being cancer free and then got smacked down," Sara said.

They had liked the odds that 70 percent of men in their situation were unlikely to develop cancer outside the testicle area.

"Unfortunately Matt was part of that 30 percent where the cancer did come back," said Dr. Paul Crispen, a urology oncologist at UK who treats Matt.

The odds never were much in Matt's favor to get testicular cancer in the first place. About five out of 100,000 men will get the disease, however it is the most common form of cancer for men between the ages of 20 and 40, Crispen noted.

Matt didn't have any of the potential risk factors.

But, as Matt points out with a smile, odds haven't always been in his favor. He was declared legally blind in his left eye after taking a tennis ball to it in a match against Baylor as a sophomore.

Doctors at the time told him it was a one in 10 million chance that the ball would hit him and do that kind of damage to his retina, Dennis said.

But Matt, despite the eye injury and being told his professional tennis hopes were over, was still a prolific college player. He defied a new set of odds and helped UK reach the NCAA Tournament regional finals as a senior.

Survival mode

After the cancer came back in his lung, Matt started nine weeks of aggressive chemotherapy treatments. His final one will be on Tuesday, the day before he turns 29.

The radioactive chemicals Matt needs to treat his cancer and the extra fluids he takes to combat them have changed his appearance so much that his father almost missed him when he went to pick up Matt outside Markey Cancer Center a few weeks ago.

"He walked out and I didn't recognize him," Dennis said.

"It wasn't the first time I'd seen him without his hat on, but the first time I'd seen him out in public without his hat on. I really didn't recognize him. That was a little scary for me."

But the instant Matt smiled and started walking toward the car, Dennis recognized his son again.

For seven hours a day, the chemicals drip into his body via an IV in his arm.

Matt shaved his head about two weeks in after clumps of his once thick, dark hair came out in his hands.

Tennis training turned out to be good practice for fighting chemotherapy.

"It's a battle," Matt said. "Having been through the grueling parts of training, both mentally and physically, before has helped me get through this. I know I can get through it,"

He has watched hundreds of reruns of Cheers to pass the time.

"Your energy level is low, your muscles are very sore," he said, pointing specifically to his forearms, where the medicine enters his body. "You just feel a general fatigue."

When going through treatment, he even gets sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Sara's tired, too, but for different reasons.

"We're tired," she said. "We're tired of the cancer. We're tired of the process. We're ready for it to be done.

"We're just in survival mode. We're doing whatever we have to do to get through it. The end is near."

And the prognosis is good, with a better than 90 percent chance he'll make a full recovery, Matt's doctor said.

Successful season

One thing that helps keep Matt going, helps sustain his smile, is seeing the success that Kentucky is having in men's tennis.

Dennis, the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, is having his best season in the 30 years he's coached at UK.

His team is No. 6 in the nation and went 11-0 for the first time in school history in SEC regular-season play.

"I'm just so happy for him," Matt said of his father. "It's really cool to see him have this success. He deserves it so much."

It hasn't been the easiest of years for Dennis or his wife, Brenda. While one son battles cancer, another son, Andrew, is overseas as a Marine (special operations) in Afghanistan. Andrew left for his second tour in January.

When asked if this season's success was somehow lessened because of the stressful things happening to those he loves most, Dennis quickly shakes his head side to side.

"It hasn't been bittersweet," Dennis said with a smile that looks a lot like his son's. "It's been really, really sweet."

Kentucky earned an at-large bid into this year's NCAA Tournament and will host the first two rounds starting Friday at the Boone Tennis Center.

Matt will be courtside with his father and assistant coach Cedric Kauffmann trying to help UK advance.

As a volunteer assistant coach, Matt has been invaluable, Dennis said.

"He's really good on the court and during the matches," Dennis said. "He's very perceptive. He played at this level. He played here in the SEC. He's young enough to understand the emotions of what's going on."

And he's a positive calming force. His smile helps.

There's one last positive that Matt can take from the cancer.

It brought him home.

"Cancer has drawn us all closer," Matt said. "It's made all of this success this season even more special for all of us."

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